Octavia Hill (1838-1912)

Sector: Real Estate

There is no shortage of material about the life and work of Octavia Hill. Like Gertrude Jekyll, one of her contemporaries, she was a prolific writer and has also been much written about. Like Gertrude, the commercial approach Octavia took in establishing her housing projects has also been underplayed.

When she died in 1912, she was widely described as a ‘Philanthropist and Social Reformer’ and ‘one of the most practical and energetic woman philanthropists of her day’. This label of philanthropist has followed her around, dragging with it the inference of a rich woman handing out money, which is not at all what she was about. A better description would the one chosen by The Globe, ‘Pioneer of Profitable Philanthropy’.

Besides the housing initiatives, which were her primary focus from 1865 onwards, she participated in a number of significant campaigns and a host of organisations, many of which continue to have influence today. The one with which she is probably most strongly associated now is the National Trust, which she co-founded in 1895, but by 1887 her standing was already such that she was one of only three women invited in their own right to attend a service in Westminster Abbey celebrating Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. (The other two were Florence Nightingale and Josephine Butler.)

Octavia held strong views on a wide range of issues. By the end of her life her opposition to state pensions, women’s suffrage and local councils playing a role in providing housing started to erode her reputation and even a hundred years after her death, her attitudes and beliefs are much discussed as questions are debated such as whether or not there should be development in London’s Green Belt. This post explores her life leading up to the founding of the National Trust through ten campaigns and organisations and in particular the legacy her work has left across London.

Octavia Hill

1. The Ladies Guild
Octavia Hill was born into a middle-class family in Cambridgeshire, her father’s eighth child, hence her name. Five of those children were with his first two wives. Octavia’s mother was his third wife, Caroline, and together they had five more children. Life changed dramatically for Octavia Hill when she was two years old and her father was declared bankrupt. The family had to leave their home and for the next few years had an itinerant lifestyle, relying on Caroline’s family’s generosity to keep them afloat. When Octavia was about five, her father had a nervous breakdown. Although he lived for another thirty years, he became estranged from his young third family, unable to provide financial or emotional support. Octavia paid off the last of the resulting debts in 1861.

Her mother, Caroline was left trying to provide for this large, young family and they moved to Highgate, to be nearer Caroline’s father, the doctor and public health reformer Thomas Southwood Smith. In 1852, with her children reaching the age when they could start to work, Caroline secured a job managing the Ladies Guild, an organisation that aimed to empower women by giving securing work for them that would give them economic independence. The family re-located to central London and at the age of 14, Octavia was put in charge of a group of girls aged from eight to seventeen from the nearby Ragged School who could earn money by making toys and furniture for dolls’ houses.

It would have a formative effect. This was where Octavia first saw for herself what real poverty meant on a day to day basis: overcrowded, insanitary housing and ill-nourishment. She took a wider interest in the wellbeing of her group, ensuring they ate well at lunchtime and running classes to keep up their education. It was here that she started to formulate the ideas and principles that would underpin the rest of her life’s work. It was also where she met Emma Cons, who worked with Octavia for many years before going to set up her own ventures in Lambeth.

2. F.D. Maurice and the Working Men’s College
Octavia was profoundly influenced by F.D. Maurice, a founder of Christian Socialism and started reading the newspaper that he effectively edited, the Christian Socialist, when she was still a schoolgirl. When the family moved to London she started attending services at Lincoln’s Inn Chapel or further afield in Mile End to hear Maurice preach and got to know him personally. Her sister, Emily, won a scholarship to Queen’s College, the first girls’ school in the country set up by Maurice in 1848 and later married one of his sons.

In 1854, Maurice was one of the founders of the Working Men’s College. Among the early teachers were John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hughes, Charles Kingsley, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In 1856 the college started to offer classes for women and Maurice offered Octavia a job as Secretary to these classes, with this role later expanding to include some teaching responsibilities. It was during this period that Octavia had her first piece published, a two-part article for the Working Men’s College Magazine in 1860, where she wrote about the importance of education for women if they were to hold their own with men and shared her ideas on teaching.

The Working Men’s College is now known as WM College and continues to provide adult education courses in London.

3. The Married Women’s Property Act
Octavia’s grandfather was part of a circle of progressive thinkers and it was through him that Octavia met Barbara Leigh Smith, now Barbara Leigh Bodichon. Their shared interests included women’s education and the right of women to retain separate legal status when they married so that they could retain responsibility for financial assets. In 1856, Octavia helped Barbara organise a campaign to gather signatures for a petition presented to Parliament on 14th March. Twenty four thousand people signed including Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Elizabeth Gaskell. It was the first step in a 14-year battle to secure some rights under the first Married Women’s Property Act in 1870. It would take another 12 years before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 gave married women the same rights to retain their wages, hold property and act as shareholders as single women. Octavia later gave French and drawing lessons at Portman Hall school, opened by Barbara Bodichon and Elizabeth Whitehead in 1854.

4. Nottingham Place School, Marylebone – opened: 1862
In 1860 the family moved to a large house at 14 Nottingham Place in Marylebone, planning to live in some of the rooms and rent the rest but instead in 1862 Octavia and her sister Emily opened a small school there and Octavia was able to put her educational ideas into practice. When Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon started their campaign to extend University Examinations and places to girls, she willingly participated, with some pupils from her school sitting for the Cambridge Local Examinations in 1863.

5. Housing Association – founded: 1864
Octavia Hill was impelled to establishing her first housing scheme after seeing the living conditions of the children who came to her toy-making workshops. The writer John Ruskin was part of her wider circle of acquaintances and he had found her work copying and tracing to supplement her income from the Ladies Guild. In 1864, Ruskin inherited a large sum of money from his father and Octavia approached him with a proposition: if he lent her money to invest in buying the leases of three houses in Paradise Place (now Garbutt Place behind Marylebone High Street), she would deliver a 5% return.

He agreed to back her. She cleaned and repaired the buildings and then let them out, collecting the rent herself so she was in regular contact with her tenants. This had benefits – she knew a lot about their lives, was able to help them access appropriate training and work and could make any building repairs quickly. However, she also laid down strict rules about cleanliness, prompt payment and alcohol consumption. This was later criticised as intrusive middle-class interference but for most of her tenants it was surely preferable to being at the mercy of unscrupulous slum landlords. Her methods also meant she was able to give Ruskin the promised return on his investment. She proved that social enterprises were a safe option for wealthy individuals who wanted to support social causes and earn income comparable to that from traditional low-risk financial products.

Octavia publicised her work, speaking at the Social Science Congresses of 1866 and 1869 and writing for Macmillan’s Magazine, a monthly British literary periodical. More investors meant expansion and with more properties to manage, Octavia needed more rent collectors and trained up women to do this, effectively creating property management as a new profession. Emma Cons was one of her earliest recruits and Maud Jeffery, who encouraged Irene Barclay to train as a chartered surveyor, one of her last.

Octavia, the housing organisation, continues her work today, providing affordable housing and a range of not-for-profit care services enabling older and more vulnerable people to live independently. The Association of Women House Property Managers was founded in 1917.

6. Commons Preservation Society
This was founded in 1865 and had an early success when it headed off threats to Hampstead Heath with the passing of an act in 1871 to prevent its enclosure, which would have deprived London’s citizens of access. The lawyer who worked on this and other suits that resulted in the protection of Berkhamsted, Plumstead and Wimbledon commons was Robert Hunter. Octavia joined the CPS in 1875 after she tried and failed to purchase Swiss Cottage Fields to save it from re-development. She and Hunter joined forces through the Kyrle Society (see below) and later on the founding of the National Trust.

The Commons Preservation Society still exists today as the Open Spaces Society, which defends the public’s rights to use and walk across common land.

7. Charity Organisation Society – co-founded: 1869
Co-founded with the economist and reformer Helen Bosanquet, the Charity Organisation Society counted William Gladstone and John Ruskin among its early supporters. It was progressive in some ways and reactionary in others. Unsurprisingly, it adopted the casework approach to social work which Octavia had pioneered and sought to ensure individuals received tailored support. However this meant they opposed universal measures such as state-provided welfare payments. In 1882 COS established a Sanitary Committee and it was with COS that Beatrice Webb started her career in social investigation in 1883. The organisation collaborated with Charles Booth on his famous poverty maps, a project on which both Beatrice and Clara Collet worked, but he was one of the first to break ranks advocate for a universal, non-contributory state pension.

Change and innovation in the early 20th century meant that the Charity Organisation Society managed to stay relevant and it still exists today as Family Action.

8. Kyrle Society – co-founded: 1876
This organisation was founded by another of Octavia’s sisters, Miranda, and formally constituted in 1876. Octavia was the Treasurer. Its aim was to ‘Bring Beauty to the Home of People’ and a number of committees were set up, focusing on interior decoration, supported by William Morris, music, literature and open spaces. It was the last of these that had most influence, with Robert Hunter as honorary secretary. It extended the remit of the Commons Preservation Society by exploring opportunities to increase access to land owned by private individuals and Metropolitan councils, and encourage the planting of more flowers and greenery in even the smallest outdoor spaces – courtyards and window boxes. It secured Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire for the public and campaigned to allow disused burial grounds in London to be used as public gardens. The passing of the Metropolitan Open Spaces Act in 1881 made this easier and in 1882, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA) was formed. The two organisations worked together but it was the MPGA that had real scale and it was largely due to its work that by the turn of the 20th century the population of London had risen by 18% while the open space had increased by 50%.

The reach of the Kyrle Society went beyond London, with branches in Liverpool and Bristol but it was very much a Hill family initiative and as family members aged and fund ran out, it fell into abeyance.

Octavia Hill by John Singer Sargent; oil on canvas, 1898
© National Portrait Gallery, London

9. Women’s University Settlement – co-founded 1887
In 1887, together with Helen Gladstone (1849-1925), the youngest daughter of prime minister William Gladstone and a number of other women from Oxford, Cambridge and London universities Octavia established the Women’s University Settlement (WUS) in Southwark. Helen was a pioneer of women’s education and would go on to be Vice Principal of Newnham College from 1892-96 and Warden of the WUS in Southwark from 1901-6. This was part of a wider Settlement movement, of which Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel was another example, that sought to bridge the class divide by encouraging the better off to contribute practical support to solving societal issues, rather than just raising money.

The WUS sought to provide women university graduates with rent-free accommodation in London in return for a commitment to working in the local community, particularly with women and children. They developed schemes that focused on education and recreation, for example games, a library, trips to museums and bible classes.

The WUS survives as the Blackfriars Settlement, a charity providing community services and support.

10. Army Cadet Movement
In the shadow of the Shard stands a community garden, the Red Cross Garden, laid out by Julia Reynolds-Moreton, Countess of Ducie, in 1887. This was another of Octavia’s initiatives, taking the site of a paper factory to create a green space where the people living in the smoggy and crammed conditions nearby could relax, play and enjoy nature. She added a row of six cottages and a community hall, designed by Elijah Hoole.

It was also here that Octavia formed the Southwark Cadet Company in 1889. The Army Cadet Movement had started nearly thirty years earlier, initially with a view to creating volunteer forces in schools that could supplement the regular army in the event of a French invasion. This did not materialise but the idea was seen to have wider societal value among social reformers including Octavia. Hers was the first independent Cadet Battalion in London, aiming to instil the principles of order, cleanliness, teamwork and self-reliance in the boys living in the surrounding slums. It marked the start of a shift towards the Army Cadet Force becoming a volunteer youth organisation inspired by the Army.

Today the Army Cadets has over 67,000 members.

Octavia Hill’s birthplace in Wisbech is now a museum though as of June 2022 was closed with no confirmed re-opening date. However, the museum website includes a lot of information about her life and work. In 2012, the think tank Demos asked a number of writers and academics to contribute essays on The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill and this article draws on those essays.

Other sources include:

The Globe 15/8/1912; The Scotsman 16/8/1912; Clifton Society 22/8/1912; The Vote 24/8/1912

‘Octavia Hill: A Life’ by Gillian Darley (1990); Octavia Hill: ‘the most misunderstood Victorian Reformer’ by Elizabeth Baigent in ‘Octavia Hill, social activism and the remaking of British society’ ed. Elizabeth Baigent and Ben Cowell (2016)

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